Picture-Perfect Story Settings

Using common picture books, teachers can help learners develop the setting for their next creative writing projects.

By Erin Bailey

Boy reading

“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows.” - Charlotte’s Web  

With just four sentences, E.B. White transports us to a place that feels as tangible and familiar as our own bedrooms. More than just the time and place of a story, setting is another character, another leg for the story to stand on. It influences the characters’ actions and the progression of the plot. When Jack and Annie from The Magic Tree House series visit a market in ancient Pompeii, they interact with their surroundings: they hide behind fruit stalls, peer into a butcher shop, and watch a line of gladiators marching to the amphitheater. While most young writers tend to focus on characters and action, they can learn the importance of developing a memorable setting.

Illustrating the Setting

Picture books are one way to demonstrate how important setting is. Because the setting of the story is often left to the illustrations, picture book authors don’t spend a lot of text developing it. To stress the importance of writing about the setting upon intermediate and middle school writers, read the story aloud without showing them any of the illustrations—including the cover. Then ask listeners to draw or list details from the setting. They quickly realize how difficult this task is because the author doesn’t give them much to go on.

Setting as a Time Period in Lovable Lyle

Bernard Waber’s classic, Lovable Lyle, is a good piece to discuss the setting’s time period. Do the read-aloud activity. Afterward, ask children when they think the story takes place. Next, show them the pictures and have them find details about the time period. Careful observers might point out that the female characters are wearing dresses, aprons, and fancy hats, the cars are large and bulbous, and the houses are decorated with wallpaper and fancy curtains.

Next, ask your class what might happen if the illustrations are not included in the book’s next edition. Such details would need to be included in the text. For example:

  • “The bakery lady, who always wore a perfect white apron and a flower print dress, loved him. She always gave Lyle a cookie…” 
  • “One day, quite mysteriously, a note addressed to Lyle was slipped under the door of the house on East 88th Street. Lyle stared at the pink spotted wallpaper and listened as Mr. Primm read it. He dug his claws into the yellow braided rug until they scratched the black and white checkerboard floor underneath it…” (The added details are bold.)

Point out that long descriptive passages about setting aren’t always necessary. Rather, a few well-placed details will be enough to help the reader imagine Lyle’s world.

Setting as a Place in Owl Moon

In Owl Moon, the setting plays a big part in the story. The moon-lit woods shape each step of the adventure and author Jane Yole’s text carefully enhances the illustrations:

  •  “The moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine.”
  •  “Our feet crunched over crisp snowand little gray footprints followed us.”

For this writing exercise, let the children study the pictures, jotting down any details about the setting. Do they note the bare tree branches standing out against the expanses of white snow? How about the forest’s alternating patches of moonlight and inky shadows? Can they feel the cold through the characters’ coats and scarves by the way they jam their hands deep into their pockets? Next, have your writers work together to construct a few sentences about the setting, and as you read the story aloud, help listeners find places to insert those sentences.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

A final exercise to help children develop the setting of their own stories focuses on writing showing statements rather than telling statements. Good authors know that showing readers what the surroundings look like will quickly build setting. Rather than writing, “The room was messy,” have children think what kind of picture would go with this statement. “Dirty clothes and books littered the floor. When I opened the closet door, a tumble of toys and a tennis racket fell on my head.”

When describing the setting, novice writers tend to oversimplify with lines like, “The weather was cold,” and “It happened a long time ago.” Help them turn these telling statements into showing statements by asking them to imagine how this might be illustrated in a picture book. You can have them return to Lovable Lyle or Owl Moon for practice doing this.

Since the whole point of such exercises is to have students apply new skills to their own writing, young writers should be given the opportunity to select a piece or several pieces of their own that could benefit from setting development. When they are exposed to multiple examples of effective writing, students naturally begin to think about how the techniques can be applied to their own writing. It takes practice, but picture books make a good platform on which to build a study of setting. Other picture books with a strong sense of time and place include The Lorax, Thundercake, The Relatives Came, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

Writing Lessons from Lesson Planet:

Use These Writing Applications in Your Classroom

This article offers tips on using some online applications to help your writers. Two of the apps utilize pictures that encourage children to write what they see while two others aim to help them expand their ideas.

Twain’s Use of Descriptive Settings

This three day lesson for secondary writers studies how Mark Twain developed his settings. Using pictures of the places Twain frequently wrote about and excerpts from several of Twain’s books, pupils identify the details that create a strong sense of place, and then use his technique to recreate their own special place in a piece of writing.

Cinderella Folk Tales: Variations in Plot and Setting

This very detailed lesson for intermediate grades reaches across cultures to study the Cinderella story. Learners read several versions of the folk tale and consider how variations in the setting affect the characters and plot. They then write their own version of the story in a setting of their own choosing.